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The Kemalist Sympathizers Of Bin Laden

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments] “One Laden dies, a thousand Ladens are born,” reads the cover story of the current issue of the magazine “Türk Solu,” (Turkish Left.) A smiling photo of bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who just got killed by American soldiers, covers the front page of the magazine. And its logo presents a sober photo of the all-secular Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, while defining the publication as “An Atatürkist, nationalist, leftist paper.” I know, it sounds weird. But it is actually not that weird when one gets to know the “anti-imperialist” strain within Kemalism (aka “Atatürkism”), and the political, rather than religious nature of al-Qaeda. Enter ‘Turkish Left’ First, let’s get some background. Türk Solu is a monthly publication created in 2002 by a group of ultra-nationalist and ultra-secularist ideologues. It reflects a strongly anti-Western, anti-Islamic and anti-Kurdish line, and a curious blend of Kemalism, Marxism and Turkish racism. One of the magazine’s oft-repeated arguments is that there is no “Kurdish issue” but a “Kurdish invasion” in Turkey, as these “primitive” people are reproducing like rabbits and invading the living spaces of enlightened Turks. “Do not eat kebabs and lahmacun, which are Kurdish food,” once the magazine advised its Turkish readers. “That is a cultural imperialism similar to that of McDonalds.” Politically, Türk Solu supports the marginal National Party (Ulusal Parti in Turkish), which supports several independent candidates for the upcoming general elections. One of them is the Istanbul candidate Cafer Özsoy, who said, “Our way is the tested way; it is Atatürk’s way.” Over the years, Türk Solu has routinely bashed the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, religious leader Fethullah Gülen, and Turkish liberals, while praising Kemal Atatürk, Charles Darwin or Che Guevara. And now it seems to have taken another great leap forward by adding Osama bin Laden to its hall of fame. This is brilliantly articulated in the latest editorial of the magazine written by Gökçe Fırat, one of its prominent commentators. Mr. Fırat begins by denouncing mainstream Turkish media, which he calls “American lackeys,” for welcoming the killing of bin Laden. He then heads on to condemn Turkish President Abdullah Gül, for expressing relief in the wake of the end of the al-Qaeda leader. “Abdullah Gül is a shariah supporter, and bin Laden is a shariah supporter,” Mr. Fırat said, “so why can’t they along?” The reason, the writer explains, is that Turkey’s “Islamists” such as Gül or Prime Minister Erdoğan are “in the service of America,” whereas bin Laden was fighting America. “Bin Laden did,” Mr. Fırat also notes, “what our shariah supporters could never do, and will never be able to do.” In other words, although Mr. Fırat hates the shariah, and its perceived supporters, he still has a heart for the “shariah supporters” who dare to fight the United States. His piece ends as follows: “Bin Laden was not our friend. If he lived, perhaps he would be our enemy. But at the end of the day, he was able to give America, our enemy, a response that we have not been able to give. And he left his comfort, and sacrificed his everything, to be able to give that response. Well, may God forgive his sins. And let the Americans rejoice for no reason: For when one bin Laden dies, a thousand bin Ladens are born!” Anti-imperialist union Now, having met the powerful ideas of Türk Solu, let me tell you what my take on this is. First, on Kemalism. This ideology is often referred to as a “Westernization” agenda, and that is not totally untrue, but the picture is much more complicated. Especially since the early 60’s on, a left-wing interpretation of Kemalism grew, which defined Atatürk as an anti-imperialist hero that defeated the Western powers that wanted to destroy Turkey. In the 2000’s, this anti-Western version of Kemalism had a rebirth under the new current called “ulusalcılık” (secular nationalism), which denounced the AKP, and “moderate Muslims” such as the Gülen Movement, for being “puppets” of the European Union and the U.S. The magazine Türk Solu is one of the boldest expressions of this ideology, while it is slightly milder forms can be observed in more popular newspapers like daily Cumhuriyet. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, also has some members, and some rhetoric, which mirror the same ideology. As for al-Qaeda, I have been arguing that it is a political movement rather than a religious one, and this peculiar example of Türk Solu seems to support that view. Of course, people like bin Laden are deeply religious, but their zeal against the West, and particularly the U.S., is rooted less in religious texts and more in the reaction to what they perceive as “imperialism” against the Muslim world. That’s why some secular-minded “anti-imperialists” in the same part of the world can sympathize with al-Qaeda, while many theologically-minded Muslims see its terrorism as a deplorable stain on Islam. The world, after all, is quite a complicated place. The world of Turkey is perhaps even more so.
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